Whimsy With A Wallop: Hal Ashby’s Harold And Maude (1971) – Blu-ray review
The origins story for whimsical American indie… yet, being made in tumultuous times, there’s a political edge that transcends accusations of hipster affectation
Harold And Maude
(Hal Ashby, 1971)
By rights, Harold And Maude should no longer be fresh or surprising. It is surely one of the most influential of films, albeit quietly so – the wellspring for the quirky, offbeat independent cinema of Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz, Alexander Payne and Richard Ayoade, amongst many others. Yet none of those imitators have quite captured how unusual Hal Ashby’s film is, at once the tenderest of love stories and a subversive, surreal assault on mainstream America.
These days, ‘indie’ is a brand and even its best purveyors are playing to certain expectations. Ashby had no such straitjacket – his only safety net was his reputation as an esteemed, Oscar winning editor, which allowed him a certain free rein in his directorial career. Colin Higgins’ script is such a risky venture that it’s amazing (even by the standards of 1970s Hollywood) that a major studio would green-light it.
The central premise, about the burgeoning love affair between a death-obsessed teenager and an elderly woman whose experiences have taught her to embrace life with giddy, carefree abandon, hits that perfect sweet spot between allegory and character study. It’s a film conceived as the 1960s ended with Altamont, Charles Manson, the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, and Vietnam still raging – it’s no wonder that Harold pines for death. Yet here’s Maude, a survivor of trauma who has swapped the impotence of activism for a highly individual, intoxicating brand of civil disobedience.
The result is whimsy with a wallop, as the apparently flippant, frivolous surface masks deeper, resonant themes. Ashby tackles politics, psychoanalysis, religion and warfare and finds them all wanting, deciding interest that it is better to put a hippyish faith in sunflowers and Cat Stevens ballads. Naïve? Maybe – but in the film’s most audacious moment, Harold glances at Maude’s arm and gains a shocking insight into her past. A lesser film would dwell on that fact; here, you blink and you miss it. This isn’t a film to wallow in self-pity; even Harold’s emo-kid affectations are a source of cunning humour – his fake suicides are one of cinema’s greatest running jokes.
Ashby films with casual elan, borrowing the great Buñuelian trick of staging the outrageous and impossible (how exactly does Harold survive his many deaths?) amidst impeccably elegant décor. But there’s a pleasing messiness to his compositions – none of Wes Anderson’s geometric perfection here – that chimes with the humanity of the story, as Ashby gradually brings his camera closer as the titular characters themselves forge a relationship. Ditto the intuitive editing, which balances gleeful slapstick (Maude’s run-in with a highway patrolman, a prank played on Harold’s army uncle) and sight gags (Harold’s car!) with eloquent, languid chamber conversations that revel in the stars’ tangible delight in the project.
Ruth Gordon, like Ashby, had already won her Oscar (for Rosemary’s Baby) and doesn’t give a fuck about received wisdom towards the elderly; much of Maude’s humour comes from a sophisticated writer-actress seizing on a rare opportunity the script affords to subvert typecasting. Bud Cort, meanwhile, is an impish, sullen figure whose gradual thawing is truly heart-warming: his smile might be uncertain as he wrestles with social conditioning, but the bounce in his step as he spends time with Maude is unmistakable.